When teachers have unconventional style: Advice from real-life teachers.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m beginning training as a teacher for elementary-aged kids in June. It’s a fast and practical program, so in September I’ll be in a classroom. I’m really excited about it, but I keep worrying about my appearance. I am an openly gay woman in my early 20s, and I guess I look pretty butch and a bit punk: I’ve had a buzzcut for many years; I have some facial piercings and tattoos. I understand dressing appropriately, and I’m happy to take out the piercings and cover the ink, but I will definitely still not look like the classic elementary teacher. I’m fairly confident about the way I look; I’ve worked casual jobs and never had any issues, but I’m aware that being a teacher is much more personal than work in a bar or a shop. My concern is less about the kids and more about teachers and parents—it’s not a super conservative area, but it’s not super liberal either. In your experience is an unusual-looking teacher a big deal? Is it something that can influence opinions on performance? Should I be worrying about kids’ reactions too? (I am presuming they’ll react at first and then just get over it). Should I start growing my hair while I still have enough time?

—A Self-Conscious Trainee

Dear Self-Conscious Trainee,

True story—until the pandemic, I’d had blue hair since my early 20s. Before my first interview at the end of grad school, I dyed it a dark enough shade of navy that, in the NYC public school lighting, it would look black. I got that job, went back to my previous color, and then when a student realized that I was the same lady he’d sat in on a sample lesson for, he literally said, “What happened to you? You used to be calm, and now you’re a crazy lady with maniac hair!”

This is all to say that a) middle schoolers will say anything that pops into their heads, and b) you can trust that I have been in this position before. At that same job, I was the first out queer person a lot of my fifth graders knew, and many of their parents were deeply Catholic. I definitely know the anxiety you’re feeling.

Here’s what I did—I spoke to the principal at the school openly about my fears. I started with the easy one: what’s the school dress code policy on teachers with unnatural hair colors, piercings, etc. Generally, principals say things like “We want you to be your authentic self” because, of course, there will be students at your school who will see you and have their “Ring of Keys,” this is the gender expression I want moment. If you know the school has your back, that makes the issues with the parents easier, because the worst-case scenario is the parents complain, and you know in that situation the school will say that Teacher X’s skills are what matter, not their appearance.

As for queer stuff, again, knowing the school has your back is a big help. Talking to your administrators about how you’re feeling can help them address your fears. They might, for example, tell you that you’re not the first out teacher at the school. Or they might say that it’s a new situation but they have your back. Your teachers’ union rep is another person to talk to about this, when you know who that person is. You want to have that confidence going into the year.

Once you do, parents are manageable. Often, you can get ahead of first impressions by starting with text communication. Sending an “about me” letter home to families is a good way to build a connection anyway, and in it, you can let them know the kind of teacher you will be. You can show them pictures of your classroom. They can hear your voice through your writing and form an impression, and then, when they meet you at open house, you may be able to avoid some of the negative stereotypes they may have. They already know, for example, that you love children and care about them.

Remember that you cannot be your best self in the classroom if you aren’t comfortable. That applies to how you prepare for the day, what time you go to work, what shoes you wear, and, yes, how long your hair is. You cannot be your best self if you’re trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not. I have worked in places where I’ve chosen to use the word “partner” or (at the time) “fiancé,” and where I’ve worked my sentences to avoid pronouns. You have to do what you have to do to be safe. But I’ve also come out to parents who I thought would make it weird, and they don’t. Once you’ve established a relationship with families as someone who is supporting their kids, and shown these families you’re a good teacher, the way you look will matter less. You just need to set yourself up to do that great work without feeling like you’re in a costume while you do it.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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My child will be rising in pre-K in September, and we are starting to think about kindergarten. We heard on the playground recently that all kids in our public schools are given their own tablet starting in kindergarten, that homework is administered on the tablets even for the young kids, and that even in school they are using tablets most or all of the day. I understand that technology was needed for remote school, but can’t help but be alarmed to hear that in-person public schooling sounds has morphed into mostly screen time, even for the littlest kids. Can you speak to whether this is a widespread trend for the little, little kids across the country? I’ve started asking other parent friends in my area, and everyone with school age kids has affirmed this general state of classrooms.

If it is the state of things, what do I do if I really don’t want my kindergartner to have his own tablet, period? We are a TV-only household for the kid set, and do not want to change that any time soon. Is being forced out of public and into private our only option for not giving our child his own screen before middle school? We’re sort of reeling at the idea that our only option might be to pay a premium private school rate for analog education. Would it be possible to stay in public but refuse a tablet for our child?

—Screen Shocked

Dear Screen Shocked,

I can assure you that this is not the general state for classrooms. My wife, a kindergarten teacher, has about half a dozen tablets for use in the classroom, mostly during center time but also for assessment. While that are a part of her classroom, they are not in constant use and remain one of many tools in her arsenal. A quick survey of my kindergarten teaching friends and friends with kindergarteners around the country report similar situations.

What you’ve described sounds far more excessive than the teachers and parents who I have surveyed. Like you, I would also be concerned about the amount of screen time that you describe, but as I always say, check with the people in charge first. Perception and reality in education are oftentimes wildly different.

As for remaining in public school but refusing a tablet, it will depend on the district and its policies. My fifth grade students, for example, have their own Chromebooks in the classroom. If a parent wanted to opt out of that technology, I would imagine that comprises and concessions could be made, but it would seriously impede the child’s learning.

If a lesson requires an online resource or a digital tool, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to create an equally effective alternative. But perhaps given the age of kindergarteners, this may be more plausible.

I would schedule a meeting with the principal to gather information and discuss possibilities before making a decision about next year.

Good luck!

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m an eighth grader, and my English teacher doesn’t give me any feedback or grade my work for weeks after I turn it in. I want to know what I should do to improve my work, but I don’t ever hear anything from her. When I ask her about it, she says, “You know, I have 110 students to grade,” and I still get no information from her. What should I do?

—Frustrated Student

Dear Frustrated Student,

You’re amazing! Many students are not interested in improving their work, even when they do get timely feedback.

But I’m here to tell you, eighth grade English teachers have an impossible job. I know because I was one for a long time. I too had 110 students, and when they’d turn in essays or stories, it would take me weeks, if not months, to get through them. Think about it from your teacher’s perspective for a second. Let’s say she spends 10 minutes grading each piece, that’s more than 18 hours of work. She probably has an hour of planning each weekday, but often those periods are taken up with meetings or clerical work or, in the best of circumstances, planning. If she’s like me, she’ll do the grading, unpaid, on her own time.

So, what should you do? I can think of a couple things.

First, see how much feedback you can get before you turn the assignment in. And I don’t mean asking your teacher to read and comment on the whole thing. I mean, “Ms. Teacher, I feel like my conclusion is lacking something. Can you take a quick look at it?” or “Is the exposition in my first paragraph clear?” When soliciting feedback, refer to the lessons she has taught and the rubric you were given.

Second, do some peer revision. Swap papers with someone you know and trust, and evaluate each other’s work. It’s easier to see mistakes in someone else’s writing, and often you’ll notice a thing that inspires you. Tips for peer review: Be specific; balance praise and constructive criticism; offer suggestions; and describe your feelings as a reader.

I know it’s frustrating for you not to get timely feedback from your teacher, but in my experience, students who are interested in improving…always do. You’ll be fine.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

I know there are bad teachers, but…my ninth grader got a new science teacher at the start of the semester. She’s come home and told me that in addition to learning nothing about science, this teacher has shown up with laundry to fold during class, and has looked at houses on Redfin with the students, among other things (my child took a photo of the Redfin “activity,” so I know she’s telling the truth). To say nothing of the fact that she’s not being taught anything. She’s taken to watching the other science teacher’s daily YouTube lesson to try to get a handle on the material. Where do I even start with this? Go straight to the principal? Say something to the teacher (and what?)? Please help.

—Please Teach My Kid

Dear Please Teach My Kid,

The last column I wrote for Ask a Teacher also involved a parent asking what to do about a frustratingly incompetent teacher. There are some key differences between that situation and this one: here your daughter wants a better teacher, is asking for intervention; here the “teacher” in question isn’t just teaching poorly, they are not teaching at all and are abusing their position.

Yes, it is well within your rights to go to the principal. However, you might start by seeking out the department chair and having a conversation with them. Get a sense from them whether or not this is a known-problem or if they think it is in their capacity to act. Hopefully, they will not only speak to that teacher in a professional capacity as a supervisor but will also go to administration. If that doesn’t remedy the situation, get other parents to reach out to the school. Make these complaints in e-mail so there is a written record (here in Florida, all of our emails received through school are public record). Multiple complaints demonstrate a pattern of behavior; make sure they’re all in writing so everything is properly documented.

And please, don’t feel bad about working to get this person fired. They need to be. This person is not a teacher. We’re not dealing with a struggling newbie or a stubborn old-school, take-notes-and-shut-up type. This person is a babysitter who thinks they can get away with whatever they want because their boss isn’t looking over their shoulder.

As this is the second such letter I’ve addressed in a row, I do feel the need to point out that such problems are going to become more frequent as experienced and quality educators flee the profession en masse. America’s teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Public schools were stretched thin before the pandemic; now we are broken. Every day, we go to work to overcrowded classrooms, sub shortages that force us to give up our planning, break and lunch times to supervisory duty, and a political climate that accuses us of perverting children with gender-positive education and *gasp* books.

This is in no way meant to defend the laundry-doing, house-shopping nothings (we shan’t call them teachers) who have found their way into America’s classrooms, but to explain why they’re cropping up more. Teacher attrition is high and morale is low because it has been made clear to us that many in our community don’t care about us as educators. They view us as babysitters, and when you do that, you end up with someone who does their laundry instead of teaches.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My fifth grade daughter brought up a concern about gym class, and I’m debating how to handle it. Her teacher often segments the class by gender. “Alternate by boy-girl” or “Boys line up on the green line, girls on blue.” Stuff like that. One of my daughter’s classmates came out as non-binary this summer, and that is why my daughter is concerned. How should I help guide her through this?